I see the Globe has given some laudatory coverage to something called “Teach for Canada”. The brain-child of a couple of Bay Street types (who have never themselves taught a class), the idea here is to shamelessly rip-off Teach for America (TFA) and apply its methods to the problem of low achievement among the country’s Aboriginal youth.
This is a terrible idea. And here’s why:
TFA recruits top university graduates right out of their undergraduate program, to do two years of teaching in some of the country’s poorest communities. The idea is that bright, energetic, idealistic grads can succeed in teaching underprivileged youth, where regular, salaried teachers cannot. And indeed, there’s some significant evidence that the program does work in terms of raising Math scores – such as this new study from the US Department of Education.
There is, however, no reason to think that this approach would have a similar effect if deployed in Canada among Aboriginal youth.
The reason TFA delivers some modest results is not because their brief training stint and alternative certification is equally effective as teachers college; rather, it’s because the quality of teachers in US public schools is so patchy. Teaching isn’t a valued profession in the US, and doesn’t attract top students; the teacher-training itself is pretty weak by international standards (see Amanda Ripley’s, The Smartest Kids in the World for a decent summary on this). Also, schools serving the poorest students tend to get weaker teachers, because funding is local and their tax base can’t support high teacher pay – a problem Canada doesn’t really have to deal with. Of course, Canada isn’t completely free from these problems, but they’re nowhere near as severe here as they are in the US.
Ah, you say, but what about on reserves? Doesn’t the argument hold there?
Well, the pay argument certainly does. But let’s be clear: TFA was designed for urban environments. TFA staff get ongoing training and mentorship. TFA staff, for the most part, still get to live in (or close to) hip urban areas. TFA does not go to reserves in fly-in communities, in part because the number of volunteers would be pretty low, but also because the model itself simply wouldn’t work.
More importantly, perhaps: the idea that what First Nations need are a lot of well-meaning but inexperienced white kids showing up in their communities saying, “we’re here to help!” is plain ludicrous. There’s no doubt that education for First Nations, particularly those from more remote communities, is in a desperate state, and deserving of vastly more money and policy attention than it currently receives. But youthful enthusiasm just isn’t a substitute for money and teaching experience.
Teach for Canada is pure do-gooding Kielberger-style colonialism. It’s an idea that deserves a quick death.